By C.H. Newell
Brea Grant’s having a big year in horror. She co-stars with Najarra Townsend in Jill Gevargizian’s disturbing The Stylist, and her second feature film as director is out now, 12 Hour Shift. I often preface articles about horror-comedies with the fact I’m not a huge comedy fan, twice as less when it comes to horror-comedy. A story has to be a particular type of funny to strike a chord with me. Usually the dark type. Grant’s film is shockingly funny, dark as hell, and intelligent, too.
Mandy (Angela Bettis) is one of many over-worked nurses. Unlike most nurses, she’s also addicted to drugs that get her through the day. And she helps euthanise patients, against their will, so she and her colleague Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner) can run black market organs. When Mandy’s cousin-by-marriage Regina (Chloe Farnworth) messes up an organ exchange this makes Nick (Mick Foley)— the black market dealer expecting a kidney and has already paid for it— really pissed off. What follows is a night of absolute mayhem as Regina tries to right a wrong, very, very poorly.
12 Hour Shift is a bloody mess of a riot. Bettis leads a fantastic cast; Farnworth and Gamby-Turner are two standouts who make a funny screenplay outright hilarious. Aside from viscera and good performances, Grant’s film is an interesting story full of important conversations about women struggling in the workplace, whether at a hospital or in an organ trafficking ring, as well as about euthanasia and the death penalty. Grant fittingly set the plot’s events in Arkansas, a death penalty state, during 1999, a year when executions reached a record high in America at 98 people executed. The hospital where Bettis’s Mandy works is a microcosm of Arkansas on the verge of a new millennium, or even the United States itself.
Arkansas is the perfect setting for 12 Hour Shift because of its paradoxical euthanasia and death penalty laws. The state will kill someone who doesn’t want to die, but it will not allow someone who wants to die to take their own life, nor be assisted by a physician to die humanely. You can request the death penalty as a criminal. In Arkansas, three convicted criminals have volunteered for the death penalty: Christina Marie Riggs, Ronald Gene Simmons, and Clay King Smith. Yet as a law-abiding terminally ill patient you cannot request death. In a way, Mandy’s doing some patients a favour, however, by the same token she’s also exactly like the state, putting people to death who never asked for it.
A convicted cop killer named Jefferson (David Arquette) is tranferred into the hospital where Mandy works. When Regina and Mandy are considering using the criminal for their required kidney, the former looks him over and remarks: “Probably deserves it; what‘d he do?” This sentiment embodies one of many jokes within the American justice system. People claim they want a system that considers someone innocent until proven guilty but will look at a person and judge their criminality by appearance without any of the facts. It’s a brief, telling moment in a film that has definite themes concerning criminality, morality, and the law.
The world of organ trafficking, regardless of being a black market operation, is the same as any other capitalist system: it thrives partly on misogyny/sexism. Early on in the film Regina gets aggressively catcalled: “Hey, bitch!” She’s later called “skanky” as if that’s her name. She and Mandy get referred to as “crazy cunts” later, too. Nick reduces Regina to a machine, the ideal form of citizen for capitalists, telling her they’ll essentially strip her for parts if she can’t produce a kidney for him, literally saying: “Maybe that‘s what you‘re good for— parts.”
Capitalism makes people compete with each other, more so when those people are women. One of the best moments depicting the internalised misogyny that forces women into competition under capitalism is when Mandy calls Regina crazy. Karen replies: “I don‘t like when people call women nuts.” She goes on to say it’s just a way to dismiss women by using mental health as the scapegoat. Though Regina’s definitely got problems, she’s no worse than either of the other two women who’ve been forcefully euthanising patients and stealing their organs for profit. Ultimately Mandy and Regina overcome the capitalist will to destroy each other, somewhat, by how Mandy helps Regina at the end instead of letting Jefferson use her as currency in a trade to keep himself safe. For better or for worse, it’s women against the world in 12 Hour Shift.
Brea Grant’s film is smart, mean, and very funny. There’s far more you can dig out of the story than what I’ve explored in this essay— Y2K happening in the background isn’t insignificant. That’s the mark of a film that’ll leave a lasting impact, when you can pull out a lot of different ideas and themes. Grant delivers with solid direction and a strong screenplay. Her cast is enormously talented. Angela Bettis deserves more recognition in spite of being in plenty of films over the years. She delivers one of her best performances to date with a mix of tongue-in-cheek comedy and gravitas.
12 Hour Shift is such a great film, to me, for how the story debates a number of ideas at once without needing to be overly explicit about it. The capitalist competition between women becomes a thing of dark comedy when it’s Mandy and Regina fighting over black market organs. The best part of the story comes from what I see as a bittersweet moment in the end where Mandy’s protective of Andrew, the half-brother who did awful things to her when she was a girl. She doesn’t want him to die, unlike the people she euthanised at the hospital. Mandy wants Andrew to live, so he can suffer for his transgressions. And this is the greatest anti-death penalty argument of all for those who want justice. When we keep on living, we have to not only keep breathing and waking up each day, we have to keep on living with ourselves— with who we are and the things we’ve done to others.